The Saint John’s Bible, John Frontispiece: The Word Made Flesh. Donald Jackson, 2002
Thursday, May 21st
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. 54 Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples. –John 11:1-54
For most of us residents of this virus-stricken planet, time is a big issue right now — We’re impatient with how much time this process is taking; we feel that time has slowed or stopped, or it’s creeping along; some of us don’t have enough time to handle all that’s been thrust upon us. Basically, we would just prefer that this time move right on along. Time plagues us all. Albert Einstein was once quoted as facetiously saying, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes; when you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours. That’s relativity.”
Interestingly enough, today’s scripture is quite pertinent to our current struggle, because it deals with time, timeliness, and timelessness; reminding us once again that our sense of time and eternal time are not the same. There are several time elements in Lazarus’ adventure: 1) Why did Jesus wait two days to go to Bethany? 2) Mary and Martha, waiting in their grief, were impatient with Jesus’ timing. 3) Where was Lazarus during the four-day time period between his death and resurrection?
Let us begin by examining some details of John’s telling of this riveting story. Firstly, one thing that has always bothered me is that with the power of this miracle, why didn’t any of the other gospel writers record it? I mean, if it was the pivotal event in moving Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross, why was it not mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke?
My beloved professor, John Marsh, helps answer this question, not conclusively mind you (It is, after all, a matter of faith!), but perhaps, conducively. Dr. Marsh reminds us that John’s Gospel is unique in that his story of Jesus is structured around seven signs, none of which, with the exception of the feeding of the five thousand and the resurrection, are found in the Synoptics. Equally interesting is the fact that John doesn’t use the two Synoptic examples of resuscitating the dead (i.e. the raising of the daughter of Jairus in Mark, and the bringing back to life of the Nain widow’s son in Luke). It is also intriguing to note that the one Synoptic parable that uses a proper name (Luke’s parable of the rich man and the poor man) uses Lazarus. Was there a connection? We don’t know. What’s more, that parable ends with a line that seems to have some correlation with today’s sign: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” This story is a sign for John; may it be for us as well.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this story is a beautiful example of John’s literary skill. He is known for his use of double entendre, words which may have multiple meanings, one of which may be more obvious, while another is more subtle or thought-provoking. The words light, sleep,glory, and believe all have such magnificent strata to them, with practical as well as spiritual purpose. Layered meanings are also evident in Jesus’ dialogue. As in his conversation with Nicodemus or the woman at the well, he says something quite simple which is at first misunderstood. Finally, Jesus has to clarify his teaching for his puzzled listeners. It is a simple but profound technique.
Furthermore, I think your understanding of this story will be enhanced by a few words about funerary traditions in first-century Palestine. Funerals then were week-long affairs, with burial being done on the day of death, followed by a week of mourning. Interestingly enough, funeral customs earlier had been quite extravagant, similar in some respects to Egyptian funerals, where people were buried in their finest robes with some of their most treasured possessions. It wasn’t until the time of Gamaliel the Second, a leading Jewish rabbi, that this practice ended. Gamaliel called for simple burials in simple robes, called “traveling dress.” In fact, even today at some Jewish funerals a cup is drunk to Gamaliel who rescued the Jews from their own ostentatious extravagance. But even with that, there was a week-long ritual, initiated by professional women mourners who walked first to the grave, and by their weeping set the tone for various speeches made about the dearly departed. These mourners remained with the family for the better part of the week. Another interesting note is that most grave sites were caves hewn out of the rock, with family plots having eight carved-out ledges for burial, three on each side and two facing the door (You can see evidence of this when visiting the Catacombs in Rome.). However, there were single plots as well, which were cut vertically into the rock. I imagine Lazarus’ grave to be one of these where, once the stone was rolled away, it took only a step or two to be outside. Of particular interest is the referral to Lazarus’ having been in the grave for four days. According to rabbinic tradition, the soul would hover over the grave for three days in hopes of reunion of the body, but at the sign of decomposition the soul would depart. This calling attention to the fourth day meant that Lazarus was truly gone.
Then there is the matter of resurrection. When Martha speaks of resurrection (And I do find it interesting that she intimates that while she is disappointed that Jesus hasn’t come in time, he can, if he so chooses, make things right. Her acknowledgement is similar to the request made by Jesus’ mother at Cana where she asks Jesus to take care of the wine, even though she has no idea how he will!), the resurrection that she alludes to was the type believed in by the common people of the first century, but not by the upper class, the Sadducees. (This belief in resurrection came from the commoners’ understanding of Daniel 12 and Job 14 and 19.)
The major point of the story is that John sees this event as a graphic sign of what Jesus had come to be and do. In the latter part of this gospel we hear the high priest, Caiaphas, say a most remarkable thing, the importance of which he doesn’t truly recognize . . . words as if repeated by an actor on stage — “Better that one man should die for the people than the whole nation perish.” That is a telling line indeed.
This story has perplexed people throughout the ages, and we must admit that there is much about it that we will not completely understand. Of course, people of science and people of faith often lock horns over mysterious issues such as miracles, resurrection, and life after death. Madeleine L’Engle, author of many books on spirituality, was criticized by conservative Christian groups for her young adult book A Wrinkle in Time, because of its use of supernatural characters, space/time travel and elements of magic. The irony is that the book was actually deeply influenced by L’Engle’s Christianity. (I should mention here that the director of the recent movie purposely removed the faith influences from the film, so the movie and the book are decidedly different.) L’Engle once wrote, “What I believe is so magnificent, so glorious, that it is beyond finite comprehension… it terrifies some Christians who try to dogmatize their fear by lashing out at other Christians, because a tidy Christianity with all answers given is easier than one which reaches out to the wild wonder of God’s love, a love we don’t even have to earn.” Basically, L’Engle found her faith in a God whose mysteries are far greater and more wondrous than the easy answers that many people seek.
Tom Long, who has helped me immensely in looking at this sign, tells about a couple in Arkansas who gave their six-year-old son strict instructions to come home from playing every afternoon no later than 5:00 p.m. He was allowed to play with his friends, but his parents were quite serious about his curfew. If he wasn’t home by 5 p.m., they began to worry and would call around the neighborhood to find out where he was. The boy knew that, and was careful to arrive nearly every day on time. One April Monday, however, the day after Daylight Saving Time went into effect, the boy was late coming home. When he finally arrived, a few minutes before 6 p.m., his mother scolded him for being late. “You know you are supposed to be home by 5; and here it is nearly six!” Puzzled, the little boy pointed out the window, “But the light; it’s the light that tells me when to come home.” Suddenly realizing what had happened, his mother smiled and gently explained that the day before the time had been changed, that everyone had reset their clocks, and, now, the daylight lasted longer. The boy’s eyes narrowed, “Does God know about this?” Tom said that in a childlike way, this little boy shared John’s theological vision. Time ultimately belongs to God, not human beings. We know what time it is not by death’s clock, but by Jesus’ light.
I don’t presume to know all there is to know about this story, but I do believe that the story was given so that we might learn to live on God’s time, for God’s time.
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
In the chaos of these days, are you able to envision prayer as waiting? Hear poet Luci Shaw:
After a time of writing I stop to let my mind breathe.
This is necessary, otherwise the thoughts turn gray and drift.
Even God had to rest after creating.
Sometimes I go to the hushed margins of the woods
where the afternoon light is distilled in mist.
Where it is so quiet I can hear
drips falling on the hands
of the vine maples.
In the spaces between the drops
I wait listening.
Do you believe that it is possible to embrace both the world of modern science and the mysteries of faith? John Polkinghorne, renowned physicist and Anglican priest, told an interviewer: “Because people of faith worship the God of Truth, they should welcome truth from whatever source it comes. Not all truth comes from science, but some does.” Likewise, people of science do not need to be afraid of faith. “Science doesn’t tell you everything. Those who think it does take a very diminished and arid form or view of life.”
Winston Churchill planned his funeral. At the end of his service, somewhere up in the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a bugler played taps. There was a moment of silence and then . . . “Reveille.” How may we share a confident faith in a frightened world?
A Musical Guide for Prayer: “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” by Isaac Watts
Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.
Before the hills in order stood or earth received her frame, from everlasting you are God, to endless years the same.
A thousand ages in your sight are like an evening gone; short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream flies at the opening day.
Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, Be thou our guard while troubles last, and our eternal home.